Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGuys, go out and read Go Set A Watchman.

Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird) arrives back in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City to take care of her aging father Atticus. Amidst civil rights tensions and political turmoil, Jean Louise must question her values and assumptions as she reconciles uncomfortable truths to her childhood experiences.

As I mentioned, it was our August book club pick, but I had pre-ordered it months before and intended to read it anyway. To Kill A Mockingbird, which I read in eighth grade, is one of my favorites and a book that I regularly re-read. Although billed as a sequel, and chronologically so, in some ways Go Set A Watchmen exists as a prequel since it was written first, never to be published because it was revamped to become Mockingbird.

Besides the controversy regarding the author’s intentions about publication, the other major point of conflict for readers was its portrayal of Atticus. All the reviews I read beforehand divulged Atticus’ racism, (rudely) with no spoiler warning I may add. But upon reading the book, I discovered they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, Atticus does join Maycomb’s community council, which I gather is more-talk/less-action version of the KKK, and yes, he does espouse some backward racial beliefs. However, his misguided paternalistic notions are largely a product of his experience and nowhere does he demonstrate an unwillingness to be dissuaded from them by logic.

Unfortunately Scout is unable to be reasonable in this situation. Like many of the readers, she built up Atticus as a God in her head, when he is just a man with a man’s failings. Having been presented with her biased perspective in To Kill A Mockingbird, many of us experience the same loss of innocence and are catapulted into adulthood in parallel with her in Go Set A Watchmen. The primary difference is the former is very black and white, no pun intended, whereas the latter enters into morally grey territory – Scout grows up color blind but can be narrow-minded in other ways.

As her uncle Dr. Finch mentions, the only way to hash out the differences between her understanding and that of the friends and family she loves is to stay, using her conscience to guide them to the morally correct way.  In this climate of racial tension in America, I think its a great book to exemplify how we should be holding our conversations. Even if you disagree with someone, anger and irrationality isn’t going to solve anything anymore than running away is. With humor and wisdom, Lee is brilliantly able to divulge the many facets of a complex situation- she presents a more nuanced portrayal of our racial history than what we get in textbooks or on the news.

Lee’s writing is deeply evocative of the time and place the book was set in as well as the experiences that shaped Scout’s growth. The pacing was slightly off, with the beginning being far too slow and the last hundred pages being crammed with the major plot points, but I think that was partially because it wasn’t intended as a sequel. She had to set up her story without knowing of the reader’s foreknowledge.  Certain passages were repetitive or contradictory from To Kill A Mockingbird, but I forgave that because of the powerfulness of the climax and conclusion – honestly, the last few pages were among the most moving and apt that I’ve ever read.

While perhaps not as classic as the original Lee masterpiece, you won’t regret reading this book. I highly encourage lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird to put aside doubt and experience it, and those who haven’t read Mockingbird to read both now in juxtaposition. Both books are individually vital to the American canon and essential companions in defining an historically-significant era of transition.

5 Stars

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